Being Present for Another’s Anxiety
Anxiety is a regular part of the human condition. However, it is more pervasive and triggers more suffering for some. If you have loved ones who suffer with anxiety, you are likely looking for ways to help them find relief and calm.
You’ve probably tried a variety of approaches. Maybe you’ve appealed to reason and explained to them why they have no reason to be anxious. Maybe you’ve suggested various pharmaceuticals. Maybe you’ve told them to take a deep breath and relax. Maybe you’ve offered a hug. Any of these may have been helpful or not. Ideally, you checked in with them to ask what was helpful.
Perhaps the most effective place to begin in helping with anxiety is to allow it. A common error is thinking that getting rid of an uncomfortable feeling is the quickest path to relief. In actuality, releasing resistance to an uncomfortable feeling is the quickest path to relief. It is resistance to experience that triggers the most suffering. Pain and discomfort are secondary.
You can support allowing anxiety by first addressing your own resistance to the fact that someone you love is suffering. You can identify your own resistance by the following signs:
Your body tightens
You feel a sense of urgency to help
You have the impulse to give advice
You feel irritated
You feel exasperated
You offer help without asking them what they need
You start to feel anxious
You have judgments about yourself for not being helpful enough
You have judgments about them for not getting it together
You avoid them
You minimize their experience. For example, you might say, “It’s not a big deal,” or, “You are overreacting.”
You make a plan to get them out of anxiety
Staying grounded and equanimous is the first and most important thing you can offer to someone suffering with anxiety. Your own physiological and emotional regulation helps the other person to regulate. This isn’t something you have to make happen; it happens naturally. As humans we are wired to respond and regulate with each other’s nervous systems.
From this grounded place in yourself, you can further support allowing anxiety by offering empathy. It might sound like any of the following:
“Feeling anxious, huh?”
“Do you wish the anxiety would go away and you could just relax?”
“Sucks to feel so anxious, huh?”
“Do you feel anxious because you’d like reassurance (or any universal need)?”
You can also support allowing by offering reassurance via shared humanity and sharing how it is for you. Shared humanity is a term often used by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff. It essentially means recognizing that you are not alone, that anxiety, among other challenges, is a universal human experience. Simply offering that you too have experienced suffering with anxiety can interrupt self-criticism and open the door to allowing.
Lastly, sharing what’s true for you in the moment is also helpful. It might sound something like this, “Your anxiety is okay with me. I don’t need you be any certain way,” or, “It’s okay to feel anxious,” or, “I feel comfortable and accept however you feel.” Of course, being able to offer this reassurance depends on whether these things are really true for you. You may need to anchor and engage in self-empathy before you can offer this authentically. Most deeply, offering this kind of reassurance is rooted in your confidence that the other person is truly okay and not in need of rescuing. Rooting yourself in this sort of confidence is a precious gift for the person who can’t quite find it for themselves in the moment.
This gift of allowing can be present with anything you offer to someone suffering with anxiety. Offering allowing first allows other interventions to become more effective. Interventions take on the quality of contributing to something the person needs, rather than trying to get rid of something they don’t want.
Take a moment now to bring someone to mind who struggles with anxiety. Notice your own reactions, feelings, and needs. Anchor. Imagine yourself staying grounded and equanimous as the other person shares their anxious thoughts and feelings with you.